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November 23, 2021

How PLCs Can Get Better at Using Student Data

There are three steps leaders can take to support teachers in using learning data in their professional collaboration.
Professional Learning
Since 2004, when Richard DuFour outlined the key components of a professional learning community—a commitment to student learning, a culture of collaboration, and a focus on results among them—communities have cropped up around the world. The All Things PLC website lists 333 communities nationally, with more in other countries. But while teacher collaboration around student learning is a well-established initiative, few studies have investigated how teachers collectively think about and interpret student data, or how leaders can support their teachers in that data interpretation (Little, 2012). 
As an associate principal, Darin noticed through observation that teachers in PLCs did not spend time discussing their approach to data analysis and interpretation. Teachers acknowledged the importance of collaboration and common assessments, with the idea that the collaboration improves practice. This is especially true when discussing what students should know and how teachers should respond if students demonstrate (or don’t demonstrate) the desired learning. However, teachers did not often get into the details of how to think about the data they collect in the common assessments to help answer those PLC questions. It’s as if the data somehow should have been self-evident, whereas it’s really interpreted by teachers’ approach.
Darin’s dissertation research (2017), which Joanne supervised, explored how teachers in professional learning communities talked about student data and used it to change their practice. This study uncovered that teachers in PLCs often do not have a common understanding of what student knowledge is, nor how to engage in dialogue about what students know. However, there are ways that leaders can support teachers to better use student learning data in their professional collaboration and inquiry.

Three Steps for Using Student Data

Let’s imagine a hypothetical high school math PLC with three teachers across grade levels. Their administrators have scheduled a common meeting time for them during the school day to discuss student data, determine what students are learning, and decide how they might adjust their practice. One teacher, Antonio, has been teaching five years and been to national PLC training. A second teacher, Barbara, has been teaching for 20 years in the same school. A third teacher, Chris, is a new graduate of a well-regarded mathematics education program. These teachers set out to improve their use of learning data together, using the following three steps.

Step 1:  Understand Knowledge-of-Practice

Schools with PLCs assume that teachers are going to collaborate on their practice and use student learning data from common formative and summative assessments to inform that practice. However, individual teachers have different conceptions of what knowledge and practice are. Before teachers can work together, they need to understand their own thinking about knowledge and practice and move together to a shared understanding of how to apply that knowledge to their classrooms.   
Cochran-Smith & Lytle (1999) identified three different conceptions of knowledge and practice. First, knowledge-for-practice indicates that there is a set of best practices, established by experts, that teachers should strive to implement.  Teachers learn these best practices from experts or conferences, or through trickle-down information passed from district administration down to teachers. Second, knowledge-in-practice values practical knowledge gained through experience on the job. Finally, the knowledge-of-practice concept assumes that teachers across their careers generate knowledge by making their classroom a site of inquiry. 
Using student data in PLCs to improve practice assumes that teachers use knowledge-of-practice. Talking about student data generated from their classrooms requires teachers to think about their classrooms as a research site where ideas are tested. It also requires teachers to de-emphasize the other two kinds of knowledge, because they rely less on their formal or experiential and instead are working to generate new knowledge together through inquiry into their own practice.
In our scenario, for example, there could be conflict among the PLC based on teachers’ individual conceptions of knowledge, before teachers ever start discussing student data. Antonio, who’s been to PLC training, may feel that he should lead a discussion using the four essential questions of a PLC—what do we want students to know, how will we know if they know it, what will we do if the already know it, and what will we do if they don’t know it? (Dufour 2008)—because he has been exposed to that formal knowledge-for-practice.
Barbara may feel that she has practical knowledge about what students should be learning because she’s the most veteran teacher (knowledge-in-practice). This viewpoint may inadvertently offend Chris, who doesn’t have Barbara’s experience yet, but has recently engaged in learning opportunities about treating his classroom as an inquiry site and developing knowledge-of-practice. 
If their school had spent time letting teachers know that they might have different ideas about where knowledge comes from, perhaps this PLC could move forward to discuss changing their practices (more on that in Step 2). The school also needs to come to a shared understanding that PLCs are intended to collaborate in enacting knowledge-of-practice.

Step 2:  Use Knowledge-of-Practice to Develop a School-Wide Inquiry Stance

Grounding collaborative work in the concept of knowledge-of-practice requires all members of the school community to continually reflect on and question the ways in which they have experienced knowledge and practice in the past, so that they can discuss their current methods and think about future ones. This process of analyzing and questioning one’s practice is known in cognitive circles as “inquiry stance” (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999). Teachers in a PLC may demonstrate an inquiry stance when a teacher questions whether a student’s claim and evidence shows mastery of a standard. Or when, after reading several student work examples, the PLC wonders whether the prompt provided the students with specific enough guidance. Schools that have developed a strong inquiry stance, with a common understanding that teachers should question their knowledge and practice, are able to get beyond surface-level conversations about “what I do in my classroom” to deeper conversations about “how do I know whether this works?” 
Once teachers in a PLC begin to engage in inquiry, it is important to be aware of what researchers (Nelson et al., 2012) have called a “proving stance,” meaning that teachers use their students’ data to “prove” to each other how what they have done in their classrooms is right. A teacher with a proving stance tends to generalize individual student data to make broader claims about the entire class.  For example, teacher Chris might conclude that because one of his students was able to meet the 9th grade math standard of using irrational numbers on the last math test, the whole class must have understood it. The proving stance also tends to look at the effectiveness of past instructional practice (“I did that really well!”) rather than examining ways to improve future practice (“What could I do better next time?”).
In contrast, a teacher with an improving stance tends to examine individual student data carefully to look for problems of instructional practice that offer opportunities for improvement. For example, Chris might look at the entire class’s performance on the last math test about irrational numbers to see whether all students were able to meet the standard being tested, or if there are particular problems with irrational numbers that some members of the class missed and which he needs to improve. An improving stance is an inquiry stance because it uses the classroom as a site of inquiry, but it is focused on improving practice rather than on proving expertise. 
Leaders can encourage teachers to take an inquiry stance toward their practice in a variety of ways. One strategy is to emphasize that the purpose of examining data is to improve practice, and that no one’s practice is perfect. Everyone, even an instructional leader, has something they can work on to improve. School leaders can model asking questions while working with PLCs, and they can also model how they engage in inquiry and collaboration in their own practice. While the school leader might not have a PLC in the school, they may have a collaborative group of other school leaders in the district or in the region.

Step 3:  Use the Inquiry Stance to Establish Trust (and Be Patient with Naysayers)

Finally, all members of the school community should engage in conversations and learning focused on relationship building and trust. A schoolwide culture of trust is also an important component of an inquiry approach because teachers must be open to questions and sharing about aspects of their practice. Trust is developed in collaborative teams when team members follow through on commitments and when they show kindness and patience (Hallam et al., 2016).  These traits are enhanced by common understandings of what knowledge-in-practice is and how PLCs can view their classrooms with an inquiring mind.  
We already know that school administrators should model instructional leadership and work to distribute leadership (Leithwood et al., 2004). School leaders need to develop a system in which teachers provide feedback, actively build trusting relationships, and engage the school community in conversations about working through conflict and disagreement.
Every organization has naysayers, but all members of the school community need to be able to work with colleagues who question the value of collaboration or who choose not to fully participate in collaboration. A person with an inquiry stance questions assumptions, asks for evidence, and seeks to generate new frameworks and theories for practice. An inquiry stance is one that views questions, concerns, and skepticism as opportunities for collaborative learning rather than phenomena that should be ignored, dismissed, or extinguished. 
It is important for all members of the school community to maintain patience when dealing with colleagues who are perceived as resistant to change. Research indicates that peer pressure or administrative pressure on teachers to conform does not—surprise!—decrease resistance, but ongoing collaboration that embraces the questioning of practice and assumptions does develop trust and assuage concerns (Datnow, 2011; Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012).  If all members of the school community are engaged in ongoing discussions, what is at first perceived as teacher resistance might instead be an opportunity for teacher inquiry. If members of the community embrace the inquiry process, the time invested in learning with colleagues who raise critical questions has the potential to generate new knowledge for all members of the team.
For example, Chris, Antonio, and Barbara might begin building trust by developing collective commitments for their collaboration that they all agree upon, such as assuming positive intent and listening to understand. If one or more of the teachers are skeptical of the PLC work, it would be important for other members and the school leader to take time to listen to their concerns without judgement. The questions or concerns might be an opening for inquiry into collaborative processes. 
Whether your school already has professional learning communities or is considering using them, find out how teachers already think about their knowledge and practice, encourage them to adopt an inquiry stance toward that knowledge and practice, and establish a culture of trust and collaboration. Then, all educators can generate new knowledge about student learning that is specific to the school’s context, allowing you to support high levels of learning.

Datnow, A. (2011). Collaboration and contrived collegiality: Revisiting Hargreaves in the age of accountability. Journal of Educational Change, 12(2), 147-158.

DuFour, R. (2004). What Is a “Professional Learning Community”? Educational Leadership, 6-11.

Haack, D. M. (2017). Teachers' inquiry stance: Collaboration through data analysis in a professional learning community [unpublished doctoral dissertation]. Dissertations & Theses @ Iowa State University. Ames, IA.

Hallam, P. R., Smith, H. R., Hite, J. M., Hite, S. J., & Wilcox, B. R. (2016). Trust and collaboration in PLC teams: Teacher relationships, principal support, and collaborative benefits. NASSP Bulletin, 99(3), 193–216.

Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional capital: Transforming teaching in every school. Teachers College Press.

Leithwood, K., Seashore Louis, K., Anderson, S., & Wahlstrom, K. (2004). Review of research: How leadership influences student learning. Wallace Foundation. Retrieved from

Nelson, T. H., Slavit, D., & Deuel, A. (2012). Two dimensions of an inquiry stance toward student-learning data. Teachers College Record, 114(8), 1-42.

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